Arkansas Arthropods in History and Folklore
September 1, 2006
Compiled by Jeffrey K. Barnes
Without a doubt, mosquitoes are the most widely discussed arthropods in Arkansas historical accounts. In order to absorb the full impact of the mosquito problem, we can take ourselves back in time to Arkansas Post on the Arkansas River near its confluence with the Mississippi. Arkansas Post, founded in 1686, was the first European settlement in Arkansas and the area that came to be known as Louisiana Territory. It was situated in a generally low and swampy environment in or near the alluvial plain of the Mississippi River. The lowland waters, of course, bred hordes of mosquitoes, about which visitors to the Post often complained bitterly.
In 1727, Father Paul du Poisson, Jesuit missionary to the Quapaws, arrived at Arkansas Post. His descriptions of the hordes of mosquitoes encountered there and on his canoe trip on the Mississippi from New Orleans paint a vivid picture of suffering. He complained that the plague of Egypt could not have been crueler and opined that mosquitoes had caused more swearing since the French had been on the Mississippi than all the swearing up to that time in all the rest of the world! A swarm of gallinippers embarked with a traveler in the morning, and when he passed across the sandbars or near the cane another swarm hurled itself with fury on the canoe. It was necessary to keep a handkerchief constantly flapping, but this scarcely troubled the mosquitoes, for they made a short flight and instantly returned to the attack. The human arm tired sooner than the pests did. When the traveler landed for dinner he had a whole army to fight. The men made great fires smothered with green leaves and got in the midst of the smoke to avoid the persecution, often wondering which was better, the remedy or the disease. It seemed to du Poisson that it was the inning of the mosquitoes; they eat you, they devour you; they get in your mouth, in your nostrils, in your ears; face, hands, and body are covered with them. Their stingers pierce through your shirt and leave a red mark on the flesh, which swells up if you are not inoculated against their bites. Such were the trials of a Mississippi voyage" (Thwaites 1901).
The creation of Arkansas Territory in 1819 brought numerous visitors to Arkansas Post, although appalling reports of malaria outbreaks and clouds of mosquitoes repelled the more knowledgeable adventurers. At least one territorial judge resigned his commission without even setting foot in the territory; others refused to accept a post in frightful Arkansas. The first territorial governor, James Miller from New Hampshire, resigned in 1824 and left godforsaken Arkansas with broken health and broken spirit (Lancaster 1989).
Presbyterian missionary Timothy Flint visited Arkansas Post in the summer of 1819, about the time when territorial government was being set up there. Historians rank Flint's 1826 book titled Recollections of the Last Ten Years, Passed in Occasional Residences and Journeyings in the Valley of the Mississippi, as one of the finest accounts of the American West written during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. His later title History and Geography of the Mississippi Valley (Flint 1833) was widely read, and it probably influenced settlement patterns. Flint's main objective in his writings was to present an accurate and favorable picture of the West, with a view toward attracting immigrants to the region. He offers a panoramic view of the Mississippi Valley during one of its most exciting periods. Unfortunately, some of the pages he devoted to Arkansas are less than flattering. He found the cypress swamps along the Mississippi to be gloomy and desolate.
"The water is covered with a thick coat of green matter, resembling green buff velvet. The mosquitoes swarm above the water in countless millions. A very frequent adjunct to this horrible scenery is the moccasin snake with his huge scaly body lying in folds upon the side of a cypress knee.... I traveled forty miles along this river swamp.... I was enveloped for the whole distance with a cloud of mosquitoes. ...I do not remember to have seen a single bird in the whole distance except the blue jay. Nothing interrupted the death-like silence, but the hum of mosquitoes."
Flint traveled the Arkansas Valley and concluded that it was, with very little exception, sickly. Malaria was so common that a person who came down with it was not allowed to claim the usual courtesies afforded to ill people. It was merely observed that he had the ague. Flint described his time at Arkansas Post in terms of gloom and dejection. Arkansas Post was either in the grip of a malaria epidemic or a yellow fever epidemic. The center of yellow fever activity in North America had shifted southward in the early nineteenth century, and epidemics are known to have traveled up the Mississippi River as far as Illinois.
"Every member of my family was visited with fever, except myself. The lives of two were in jeopardy for a number of days. ...The air was excessively sultry, and the mosquitoes troublesome to a degree, which I have not experienced before nor since. ...I slept under a very close musquitoe [sic] curtain. I would soon become oppressed for want of breath under the curtain, and when I drew it up and attempted to inhale a little of the damp and sultry atmosphere, the mosquitoes would instantly settle on my face in such numbers that I was soon obliged to retreat behind my curtain again. Thus passed those dreadful nights, amidst the groans of my family, calls for medicine and drink, suffocation behind my curtain, or the agony of musquitoe stings, as soon as I was exposed to the air. ...During this gloomy summer, we could not take our food until a fire, kindled with the most offensive materials, and under the table, dispersed its suffocating fumes to drive them away. Even when I wrote a letter, it was necessary that some one should be at hand to brush off the mosquitoes. In truth the lower course of the Arkansas is infested with these tormenting insects in a degree in which I have never seen them elsewhere. The inhabitants, while jesting upon the subject, used to urge this incessant torment as an excuse for deep drinking. A sufficient quantity of wine or spirits to produce a happy reverie, or a dozing insensibility, had a cant, but very significant name, -- 'a musquitoe dose.'"
"The air in the timbered bottoms is close and elastic, and the musquitos are excessively troublesome. There is but too often an abundant visitation of bilious and remittent fevers in the latter part of summer and the first of autumn.... It is a very absurd idea, that a country of the extensiveness of this, should all be alike sickly" (Flint 1833).
Friedrich Gerstäcker, however, wanted an adventure. He was a German writer of romances and travel books who came to the United States in 1837 and spent the next several years traveling the frontier regions of Arkansas and northeast Texas. In 1854, portions of his diary were translated and published as Wild Sports in the Far West (Gerstäcker 1854). This book has for decades provided historians with uniquely detailed information about Arkansas folkways in the antebellum period.
In 1840, after spending some time in Cincinnati, Gerstäcker set off down the Mississippi to collect canes that he would sell to tobacconists for pipe stems. He found room and board near a canebrake in Tennessee, not far from Arkansas. To enliven the evenings, he played cards with his host and other locals. "It happened that the mosquitoes were more formidable here than I ever found them anywhere else; and as it would have been quite impossible to sit still under the constant attacks of these tormentors, an iron pot with glowing charcoal was placed under the table; a ... boy from time to time fed it with rotten wood, in order to keep up a thick smoke, which rose up all round the table, and was by no means beneficial to the eyes."
In March of 1842, Gerstäcker was in the vicinity of Little Rock. "...The mosquitoes in the various bayous or lagoons were so numerous as almost to drive any man mad, who camped out in the open air." Later that Spring, he returned to the Fourche La Fave to hunt deer and bear. "The woods in Arkansas present a beautiful aspect at this season of the year, ... the mild spring nights, the wailing note of the whip-poor-will, the monotonous hooting of the owls, would make it altogether romantic, were the infernal mosquitoes only away."
Arkansas, with all its swampy land and a good supply of Anopheles mosquitoes, was a hotbed of malaria for a very long time. As one might expect, malaria was most prevalent in the river valleys of eastern and southern Arkansas. Exactly how the disease got here is unclear. Each of the four species of Plasmodium parasites affecting humans apparently evolved in Africa and dispersed from there, beginning hundreds of years ago. Only two of the four malaria-causing parasite species were found in Arkansas, and Plasmodium falciparum was found ten times more often than Plasmodium vivax. In the Americas, where species of Anopheles exist that are naturally receptive to malaria, the arrival of infected Europeans and Africans would have readily sparked epidemics. Malaria was prevalent in all American colonies during the seventeenth century, and the connection between swampy, low-lying land and fever and ague was widely recognized in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it led to the development of the erroneous miasmic theory, which maintained that a putrid exhalation arising from stagnant water brought fever to those dwelling in the vicinity (Carter and Mendis 2002). Others thought that watermelon and cucumbers were full of chills and malaria germs (Fletcher 1943). The connection between mosquitoes and malaria would not be demonstrated until the turn of the twentieth century. The vector mosquito in Arkansas, Anopheles quadrimaculatus, was extremely numerous, more liable to be found in homes and out building than related species, and able to breed during eight months of the year (Mosley 1941).
Malaria may well have accompanied the Spanish when de Soto led his followers across Arkansas in 1541 (Ramenofsky and Galloway 1997). We know that Indian populations declined precipitously following the de Soto venture. Various diseases, including mosquito-borne malaria and yellow fever, may have traveled from Europe or joined the expedition in Cuba, where it stopped en route to Florida. From the mid-1700s, accompanying the economic growth of the southern states based on slaves brought from West Africa, malaria took firm hold across North America. As colonists moved westward, breaking ground for agriculture, malaria moved with them. By around 1850, it prevailed through most of the temperate, subtropical, and tropical regions of the American continents.
Dr. Kirk Mosley reviewed the epidemiology of malaria in Arkansas for the early part of the twentieth century in the 1941 dissertation he wrote at Harvard University's School of Public Health (Mosley 1941). He reported that 25 to 30 percent of the people in many communities had the parasite in their blood, and a large percentage of the population was regularly self-medicating with quinine or some quinine-laden nostrum. In fact, at the start of any and all illnesses, many Arkansans took a prophylactic treatment of quinine. If the desired results were not obtained, then they sought medical advice. Mosley found serious underreporting of cases to state health officials due to negligence and the custom of self-treatment, thus eliminating the need to see a doctor. Although Arkansas was the state with the highest mortality rates from malaria in 18 of the previous 20 years, and malaria was the eighth most frequent cause of death from 1934 to 1938, the general public underestimated the seriousness of the disease. It was so widespread and chronic, and so easily treated with quinine and chill tonics that the population regarded it with no great concern. Malaria held a vice-like grip over major sections of the state, and the lack of concern on the part of the people was one of the chief reasons that it was difficult to secure the public interest and financial backing necessary for its control. Those who did not underestimate the seriousness of the disease were overcome with a feeling of hopelessness and despair.
Malaria was a major obstacle to the social and economic development of the American colonies, and, later, the territories. The long period of recurring sickness often destabilized the sufferer's health, leaving him prey to other infections. Chronic attacks of malaria over many years severely debilitated both body and mind. Pioneering, agriculture, and civil engineering were often impossible in the presence of malaria. In the 1930 classic text titled Arkansas and its People, Bramlett and Thomas (1930) wrote, "Why, thought the immigrant, should he endure mosquitoes, risk fevers, drain swamps or clear dense forests when high and dry prairie land could be found elsewhere, or why pay a minimum of $1.25 an acre for government land when the rich land of Texas could be had for twelve and a half cents an acre." On the other hand, in the South, good land sold for a fraction of the price that land up North sold for, the difference being mainly due to malaria. According to Bob Lancaster (1989), who wrote about Arkansas malaria in his 1989 book titled The Jungles of Arkansas, "...Malaria was such a demoralizing force in Arkansas life, such a relentless enemy of the state's best ambitions, that it inspired harangues even from men of science known for their objective views." "It stole the vitality of many of those it failed to kill, sapping their strength and energy for long periods, often, again and again, year in and year out, until they had been damaged in their souls in a way comparable to the damage in their red blood cells."
Malaria continued to be a major scourge on Arkansas until the vector control programs of the early 20th century were implemented. Control measures included swamp drainage, application of chemical pesticides, biological control of mosquitoes with Gambusia minnows, and screening of windows and doors. Those who could afford larvicidal measures were encouraged to spread oil, pyrethrum or highly toxic Paris green in mosquito breeding areas. Unfortunately, even as late as 1941, Stanley Carpenter, in his book, The Mosquitoes of Arkansas (Carpenter 1941), was still reporting that in many communities, larvicidal treatment was not economically feasible at that time. Poorer communities were reduced to employing window screens, contact sprays, repellents, fumigants, and smudges. Carpenter gave formulas for mosquito repellent lotions that could be made from various combinations of oil of citronella, oil of pennyroyal, oil of cedar, tar oil, castor oil, and ammonia. Carpenter also stated that inhabitants of lowland areas of eastern Arkansas used damp leaves, old rags, rubber, leather and other materials to produce dense smoke in order to protect themselves against mosquitoes, essentially the same measures used by the early settlers at Arkansas Post. These smudges were usually placed in the front yard near the porch and lighted during the late afternoon.
It was the advent of DDT and post-WWII spray programs that finally brought Arkansas mosquitoes under control. DDT was mass produced during the war and used for delousing the troops and refugees. After the war, the military continued to experiment with it as a means of controlling mosquitoes around Arkansas military bases and defense plants. By the mid-1940s, the federally financed postwar spray program was spraying around 45,000 acres of standing water in Arkansas each year. Between 1947 and 1953 nearly half a million Arkansas homes were sprayed with DDT and other highly toxic substances. By the early 1950s, malaria had largely disappeared from North America and from almost all of Europe. In 1945 there were 2226 malaria cases reported by Arkansas doctors. In 1951, there were none. The price in human and environmental health that Arkansans paid for this success may never be fully realized. By the 1960s the dangers of DDT and other insecticides commonly used in the War on Malaria became widely known.
Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859), a native of Yorkshire, England, traveled to the United States in 1808 in search of unknown and undescribed plants in the interior reaches of North America. He eventually became a lecturer in natural science and a curator of the Cambridge Botanical Garden of Harvard. In 1819, Nuttall traveled from the mouth of the Arkansas River to Fort Smith, describing his explorations in his Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory During the Year 1819.
In early April, upon returning from his rambles near Dardanelle, he picked from his skin and clothes more than 50 ticks, "which are here more abundant and troublesome than in any other part of America in which I have yet been." They may well have been Amblyomma americanum, the lone star tick.
In 1841, Friedrich Gerstäcker found good hunting near the Fourche LaFave River. "Many a night I lay in the mild warm air of the forest. Sweet and refreshing as was the face of nature, all was not repose; mosquitoes and ticks almost drove me to despair. When the fire was once well alight, the mosquitoes were attracted by it and destroyed themselves by thousands, but the ticks became the more furious. They swarm in the woods about the end of April and are a dreadful torment to the newcomer. The full-grown ticks, about the size of a small shot, are not the worst, because when they bite they may be caught and killed, but in July, the seed-ticks, smaller than poppy seeds, cover the bushes by millions, and I have often almost lost myself under them. Tobacco smoke is the only safeguard against them, as it kills them at once. The poor cattle are dreadfully tormented by them, particularly when they get into their ears. The first cold drives them away, though a few may be found all through the winter."
A common method for dealing with ticks at the turn of the twentieth century was to
burn the woods, although this brought the mountain folk into conflict with federal
forest rangers. The country people thought that there was too much timber, and it
interfered with farming and hunting. Other government agents soon appeared who advocated
tick control by use of dipping vats for cattle. So government agents were telling
the folks not to burn the woods, but get rid of the ticks, and this seemed inconsistent
with them because they knew burning was the best way to get rid of the ticks. They
also knew that while cattle carried some ticks, deer, rabbits, and other wildlife
carried them in far greater numbers (Page 1972).
Aside from travel journals and other historical accounts, we can also learn about the entomological perceptions of nineteenth-century Arkansans by studying collections of folklore. Arkansas has produced two particularly outstanding folklorists, Mary Celestia Parler and Vance Randolph.
Mary Celestia Parler (1905-1981) spent roughly three decades teaching folklore classes at the University of Arkansas. She organized the University Folklore Research Project (1949-1965), and with her future husband, Vance Randolph, and several others established the Arkansas Folklore Society. She gathered volumes of folklore from her students. To date, this material is largely unpublished, but it is cataloged and available for use by researchers at the University of Arkansas Library in Fayetteville (Parler 1962).
Vance Randolph (1892-1980), on the other hand, published extensively. He was one of the most significant personalities in the history of American folklore studies. He never held a university position, but he was a prolific author, writing about the Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma Ozarks in more than 200 articles and two dozen books. Randolph first visited Ozark country in 1899 and beginning around 1920 he spent practically all of his time there. In his own words, "I spared no effort to become intimately acquainted with Ozarkers of the hillbilly type and succeeded insofar as such intimacy is possible to one who was born a lowlander" (Randolph 1947). Much of his best material came from men and women who were old in the 1920's, so it is reasonable to conclude that his writings deal largely with the folk beliefs and traditions of mid- to late-nineteenth century Ozarks.
Much of the arthropod folklore collected by Parler and Randolph relates to common pest problems experienced by Ozark mountain folk. These include such pests as chiggers and ticks, fleas, bedbugs, and lice, which were known by the common name "little boogers."
Parler's students found that mineral oil, machine oil, and turpentine had been used to remove ticks. Pennyroyal rubbed on the legs also was said to be effective in keeping the ticks away.
The early travel journals do not speak of chiggers, but Randolph (1947) mentions them briefly. Apparently, in some parts of the Ozarks, the milkweed that we know today as butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) was known as "chigger weed," and it was said to be headquarters for chiggers. On the other hand, pennyroyal (Hedeoma sp.) seemed to discourage both ticks and chiggers, and it was safe to sit on the ground in areas where this plant was abundant. Parler (1962) recorded several entries that she obtained from her students and their informants. Sulfur took orally or dry sulfur rubbed on the legs was considered an effective defense against chiggers. One student learned that an old-time cure for the "summer sores" caused by the bites of chiggers and mosquitoes consisted of molasses and sulphur, taken orally. Apparently, another common practice was to soak rags or string in coal oil, turpentine, or kerosene, and then wrap them around ankles and wrists. It was said that pennyroyal should be rubbed on trouser legs to keep ticks and chiggers away. It was thought that rubbing bacon grease on welts could kill chiggers.
Head lice and their nits were removed with frequent combing with a fine-toothed comb. If that did not eliminate the little boogers, a mixture of sulfur and grease was generously applied to the scalp. "Some smart alec suggested, 'Hit don't kill 'em, hit stinks 'em away.'" Summertime "scalpings" also helped to stem the problem (Page 1972). Other folk remedies for lice included coal oil and a concoction of opossum grease and parsley root (Parler 1962).
Fleas were another common pest in the homes of the hill folk. Tate Page's Aunt Anna used to rid herself of fleas by using a small woolen rag, called a flea catcher. "She would seek her wool rag and proceed to insert it under the clothes at the appropriate point. In no time she withdrew the scrap and proceeded to crush the nuisance entangled in the wool. Manipulating the piece of wool, lady-like, underneath garments required a bit of doing. When the task demanded too much, Aunt Anna would retire to another room to complete the job in privacy" (Page 1972). Backwoods people troubled by fleas brought sheep into the cabin for a few days. The fleas flocked to the sheep and were thus disposed of. Randolph (1947) wrote, "A smart fellow from Lincoln, Arkansas, tells me that there are never any fleas in a sheepherder's house, but where a farmer has lots of hogs and no sheep, you'll find fleas all over the place." Sometimes foliage of sweetgum, walnut, chinaberry, southernwood, pennyroyal, and green peach was placed in rooms to rid them of fleas (Parler 1962).
Bedbugs were known to Ozarkers as "cheenches." If there happened to be a snowfall in May, the housewife was supposed to melt some of the snow in the fireplace – a sure way to kill all the fleas and bedbugs in the house. "The same happy result is said to be obtained by burning a dirty dishrag the first time you hear it thunder in March" (Randolph 1947). Apparently, it was a widespread practice to clean house in the dark of the moon, meaning during the waning phase of the moon, to keep away bedbugs (Parler 1962). Some people from Fayetteville, Arkansas, believed that the drops of resin found on pine boards often turned into bedbugs. Apparently, there was also a more general belief among early Arkansans that daddy longlegs or harvestmen gave birth to bedbugs, and as evidence of this one old-timer from Polk County told Randolph that if you mash a harvestman it smells just like bedbugs (Randolph 1947).
Much of the arthropod material collected by Randolph (1947) and by Parler's students (Parler 1962) can be classified as superstition. For example, praying mantids were called Devil's horses or spit devils, and they were thought by some to be deadly, while others believed that when pestered they could spit tobacco juice in one's eye and perhaps cause blindness. Few mountain people would intentionally kill a spider or a cricket because they believed that misfortune would follow. "Some say that if one kills a spider it won't rain for seven days, and in certain families, the children are very careful not to kill spiders in dry weather" (Randolph 1947). "Step on a cricket and your cow will go dry," reported one of Parler's (1962) students. Killing crickets could also result in the cows giving bloody milk, or the killer might fall out of bed. Similar results would ensue after killing a daddy longlegs. There was an apparently widespread belief that being stung a certain number of times (either seven or nine) by hornets would surely result in the death of the victim (Parler 1962, Randolph 1947). An empty hornets' nest was hung up in nearly every old-time mountain cabin to bring good fortune to the household, particularly in childbirth and other sexual matters" (Randolph 1947).
There is a rich tradition of weather lore in the Ozarks. When flies and mosquitoes suddenly started swarming into a cabins, or when they swarmed around doors, or when spiders began taking down their webs or leaving their shelters and crawling aimlessly about, or glowworms started shining brighter than usual, or crickets chirped louder, or bees clustered closely about the entrance to their hives, or a centipedes appeared where centipedes were not usually seen – all these were signs of an approaching storm. When the burrows of ants and crawfish are banked up about the entrance, the mountain man looked for rain or a sudden rise stream levels (Randolph 1947, Parler 1962).
Many believed that katydids sang to bring on cold weather in the fall. In some parts of Arkansas and Missouri, farmers expected the first frost exactly six weeks after the katydids' singing began. Others said that nine weeks was the correct figure, and many Missourians held out for three months. Nearly all Ozarkers feel that there must be something in the katydid-frost theory. Randolph (1947) knew many hill folk who listened for the katydids and arranged their schedules accordingly.
An old man in Washington county, Arkansas, told Randolph that he always marked his calendar with the date when the saw the first Devil's-darning-needle or walking stick. He predicted that the first frost would come just six weeks later and swore he was wrong only twice in 27 years (Randolph 1947).
Many people believed that hornets building their nests low in the trees signaled severe winter is coming, When hornets' nests hung high, the following winter would be mild" (Randolph 1947).
Cicadas, butterflies, woolly caterpillars, and leaf miners were also used in various ways as to predict the weather.
Stories about bee hunting and beekeeping in nineteenth century Arkansas are plentiful. Two very rich resources are Turnbo's Tale of the Ozarks: Snakes, Birds and Insect Stories (Allen 1989), probably relating mostly to the middle of the nineteenth century, and Dr. Roy Edwin Thomas' Authentic Ozarks Stories About Bee Huntin' and Stingin' Insects (Thomas 1972), relating mostly to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Silas Claborn Turnbo was born in 1844, and many years later he recorded stories about his childhood in Arkansas. The average age of Thomas' informants was a litter over 80 years when he interviewed them from 1970 to 1972.
Honey was in great demand. One of Thomas' informants relates how, during a dry year, the sorghum crop was poor, and the following winter and the next spring, his family had no money to buy sugar. "Did you ever try eatin' fer two months without having something sweet? Well, that's what we had to do. It was bad." Honey from wild bees provided an obvious and inexpensive alternative to those skilled at bee hunting. Honey harvesting was generally known as "bee robbing." It was understood that bees should not be robbed too late in the summer, or the colony would not have enough honey to survive the winter. Judging from the stories recorded in nineteenth-century Arkansas folk literature, wild bees must have been abundant, and many early settlers found it little trouble furnish the table with honey. A story is related in Turnbo's Tales about an Arkansas native named "Thresher" Bill Yocum (1814-1900), who lived most of his life on the White River in Marion and Boone Counties. He claimed to have harvested an estimated nine gallons of honey from a large post oak tree in 1829.
Honey bees were well established in New England in the early 1600s, and they spread from there throughout the country, even into unsettled areas, where they established colonies in hollow trees. Colonies were not seen west of the Missouri River until 1809, and by 1818 they were in Arkansas (Crane 1999). In 1832, Washington Irving traveled through Oklahoma. By this time he had already achieved international fame as an American author. On September 28, not far from Independence, Missouri, Irving noticed a couple of bee hunters with a wagon drawn by four oxen and carrying barrels to hold honey. They were en route to the Grand River, about 2 days' journey from Independence, "all the country down here being hunted out." On October 13, in northeastern Oklahoma near the Arkansas River, he observed a frontier bee hunt. The party followed bees to a large oak tree, which they chopped down with axes. A whisp of lighted hay was used to smoke off the bees (McDermott. 1944). In his 1835 book, A Tour of the Prairies, Irving (1956) wrote, "It is surprising in what countless swarms the bees have overspread the Far West, within but a moderate number of years. The Indians consider them the harbinger of the white man, as the buffalo is of the red man; and say that, in proportion as the bee advances, the Indian and buffalo retire." "They have been the heralds of civilization, steadfastly preceding it as it advanced from the Atlantic borders... the Indians with surprise found the mouldering trees of their forests suddenly teeming with ambrosial sweets, and nothing, I am told, can exceed the greedy relish with which they banquet for the first time upon this unbought luxury of the wilderness."
At the same time that Thomas Nuttall was traveling through Arkansas, another notable personality was also making his way through the state. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793-1864) was a native of Albany County, New York, who later became known as the father of American anthropology and folklore. He made a tour in 1818-1819 through the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas in search of lead mines and wrote down his impressions of three books, A View of the Lead Mines of Missouri (1819), Journal of a Tour into the Interior of Missouri and Arkansaw (1821), and Scenes and Adventures in the Semi-Alpine Regions of the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas (1853). On January 14, 1819, he mentioned that an acquaintance of his was preparing to carry bear bacon and pork to a trader at the mouth of the Great North Fork of the White River. From here to the Mississippi, the White River was navigable and the largest keelboats, barges and even steam-boats could safely ascend. Schoolcraft noted that a keelboat then at the North Fork had ascended a few weeks earlier on a trading voyage among the hunters and farmers. "The articles brought up in it, for the purposes of exchange, were chiefly flour, salt, and whiskey, with some coffee, calico, and a few smaller articles. In return, beaver, deer, otter, bear, and raccoon skins, bears' bacon, fresh pork, and beef, in the gross, venison, beeswax, honey, and buffalo beef are taken."
Only a few days earlier, while at a spot in Missouri just a few miles north of the present-day Arkansas state line, Schoolcraft and his companion, Mr. Pettibone, discovered a bee tree, which they chopped down. It was a large white oak with several gallons of honey in a hollow limb. In his journal for January 5, 1819, Schoolcraft wrote, "It should here be remarked, that the white hunters in this region, (and I am informed it is the same with the Indians,) are passionately fond of wild honey, and whenever a tree containing it is found, it is the custom to assemble around it, and feast, even to a surfeit." Schoolcraft remarked that they ate prodigiously. "Each stood with a long comb of honey, elevated with both hands, in front of the mouth, and at every bite left the semi-circular dented impression of a capacious jaw, while the exterior muscles of the throat and face were swelled by their incessant exertions to force down the masticated lumps of honey, which rapidly followed each other into the natural repository – the stomach. When this scene of gluttony was ended, the dog also received his share, as the joint co-partner and sharer of the fatigues, dangers, and enjoyments of the chance [sic]...." (Rafferty 1996).
On May 26, 1839, Friedrich Gerstäcker arrived at Stewart's on the L'Anguille River. The next morning, almost before he had time to get settled, he went to the forest to look for bees. "Swamps and thorns, creepers, wild vines, fallen trees, half or entirely rotted, deep and muddy water-courses, bushes so thick that you could hardly stick a knife into them, and, to complete the enjoyment, clouds of mosquitoes and gnats, not to mention snakes lying about on the edges of the water-courses; such is the aboriginal American forest...." Gerstäcker also reported that it was a backwoods custom that when someone finds a bee tree and does not have the time or inclination to cut it down immediately, to cut his name or, if illiterate, to make his mark on it, thus staking his claim.
On the Arkansas frontier, skilled bee hunters were widely respected for their talent. To find a bee tree, the hunter had to establish the bees' flight path, and this was called "getting the course." It could be done by using bait (dilute honey or bee comb)– perhaps some diluted honey placed on a rock or stump in the open, so the bees could be followed back to their trees after they took some of the bait After following bees for some distance, more bait could be set out, and the course could be reconfirmed, until the bee tree was found. The course could also be established by following bees taking water in at a spring or other water source. The direction of flight from the water source was an indication of the direction in which the bee tree was located. The hunter, of course, had to have an acute vision in order to follow a course. Many bee hunters gave up the sport as they grew older (Allen 1989).
On a warm December day in 1841, Gerstäcker and a companion named Slowtrap decided to hunt for wild bees. "To induce bees to take bait in the fall of the year, the hunter looks out for a small open space in their neighborhood, and if he cannot find one he must make a clearance with his knife and tomahawk, stick a branch upright in the ground, and lay some leaves on it spread with a little-thinned honey. The bees soon discover it, and when they have got as much of the honey as they can carry, they rise in circles, which become larger and large, till they attain a certain height; then they dash off direct for their own tree, to deposit their store in the general warehouse. The bee-hunter must take particular notice of the line of their flight, which requires a good eye, and then carry his bait some two hundred yards further in that direction when the bees will soon flock round it again. If, when loaded, they keep the same course, it is a sign that the tree is still in that direction, and the bait must be carried further until they fly the other way. Then the bee-hunter will know that he has passed the tree and that it must be between his present and his last station, and he is not long in finding it. When he comes near the tree, and the bees are at work, their unsteady zigzag flight will betray its proximity."
"The first time we moved our bait, the bees flew backward, so we knew we could not be more than a hundred yards from their tree, but the approaching night prevented our discovering it. Next morning about ten o'clock, as it began to get warm, we returned to our hunt, and in less than half an hour, found the hole where the little laborers were passing in and out. It was in a nearly decayed, not very large post-oak, a tree that prefers moist soils, though it also grows on hills. It bears small and rather sweet acorns; its wood is very durable and will remain long in the ground without rotting. I rode hastily back to the house, for we had taken a horse with us for the chase, and returned with a pail, an ax, a knife, and a spoon. The tree soon fell under our blows – smoke was made – the bees stupefied – an opening cut – and the most beautiful sight for a bee-hunter presented itself, in a number of well-filled cells. We filled the pail with the best, ate as much as our stomachs would bear, set the tree on fire, that the bees might not lead us astray in our next hunt, and returned to the house."
Honey was not the only reward for cutting a bee tree. The hunter could also claim the bees. They were kept in home-made structures called gums, made by cutting 3-4 foot sections from hollow sweet-gum logs (or some other type of wood), burning the interior until the surface was slick, cutting one or two small inverted V's in the bottom as passageways for the bees, and covering the slanted top with a rough plank roof. A cross piece was nailed in the middle for the bees to fasten their comb to. Later hives made from sawn planks were perhaps 12 or 14 inches square and stood about 30 inches high. They were still called gums. Extra gums were kept on hand for housing new swarms. The sound was thought to have a soothing and homing effect on the bees, so dish pans were beaten vigorously with spoons or other suitable instruments during efforts to settle and house a new swarm (Page 1972, Thomas 1972).
Giant redheaded centipedes, Scolopendra heros, are not frequently observed or collected, but those that make themselves known attract a great deal of attention because of their size and fierce appearance. These fast-moving and aggressive titans average about 6 ½" in length, and they may reach nearly 8" in some instances. They have been called "giant desert centipedes," but this appears to be a misnomer because the centipedes are often collected in rocky woodland in Arkansas. The species is also known to occur at least in Arkansas, southern Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico. Within Arkansas, we have reliable reports of this species from Benton, Carroll, Washington, Crawford, Sebastian, Perry, Pulaski, Garland, Hot Spring, Pike, and Howard Counties. The easternmost record for the species comes from Little Rock, Pulaski County (Shelley 2002).
Scolopendra heros has many color variants, but Arkansas specimens have the so-called castaneiceps pattern in which the head and first two body segments are chestnut red, the trunk is black tinged with green, and the first 20 pairs of legs are yellow. This bright aposematic coloration or warning coloration is presumed to function in warding off potential predators by advertising the centipedes' confrontational character and poisonous qualities while it goes about its daytime activities. Poison glands are located in the basal segments of the claws or fangs, sometimes called maxillipeds. Each gland drains its toxic contents through a small opening near the tip of the fang. In the mid-1920s, Dr. William Baerg tested the effect of the venom by inducing a centipede to bite one of his little fingers, leaving the fangs inserted for about four seconds. The bite was followed by a sharp and strictly local pain, which began to subside noticeably after about 15 minutes. In about two hours the pain was only very slight, but there was a general swelling in the finger. Three hours after the bite, most symptoms had disappeared (Baerg 1924). Later writers have confirmed that this centipede produces only sharp, temporary pain. Nevertheless, these threatening-looking creatures have been the subject of considerable folklore. As the famed arthropod scientist J. L. Cloudsley-Thompson (1998) once explained, "centipedes seem to exert a weird fascination on the morbid appetites of the hysterical and insane."
Some people thought these animals make tiny incisions with their legs while walking across human skin. When the animal is irritated, a poison is supposedly produced near the base of each leg and dropped into the wounds causing inflammation and irritation. The skin might even decay and never heal (Parler 1962). According to one story cited by Dr. Baerg (1924), an officer in the Confederate Army, while sleeping in his tent, was suddenly aroused by the creepy feeling of a large centipede crawling on his chest. A number of spots of deep red, forming a broad streak, indicated the arthropod's passage across the man's chest and abdomen. Violent pain and convulsions soon set in, accompanied by excessive swelling in the bitten area. The victim fought with death for two days and then succumbed. The agony suffered by the bitten officer was described by an eyewitness as the most frightful he had ever observed.
More stories can be found in Turnbo's Tales. One man from Missouri who found a giant 7-8 inch centipede decided to capture it an sell it in Gainesville to "help defray his expenses." He found the market in town "too dull to sell centipedes, for there was no demand for them. He gave the "dangerous thing" to an old settler who managed to sell it for a half pint of whiskey. In one tale, Turnbo relates how an enormous 12-inch centipede chased his brother. The centipede then stopped, bowed its body up preparatory to jumping, and while in this position a squirrel hunter shot it. Another tale relates a Missouri child's agony after being bitten on the foot by a 7.5-inch centipede. "It was said the child lay a year before he recovered. All the flesh surrounding the wound sloughed off. When the sore healed, the child remained a cripple." A man from Marion County, Arkansas, once saw a 12-inch centipede run into a hollow stump, which he set on fire and "compelled the centipede to run out at another hole in the stump..." Some time in the mid-1800's another man from Marion County saw a 14-inch centipede crawl into a hollow tree. He placed the muzzle of his rifle near the opening and "shot it nearly in twain." Taking a long stick, he pulled it out of the hollow and finished killing it with stones.
Turnbo's record Ozark centipede was captured alive by Bent Music on Jimmie's Creek in Marion County in 1860:
"Henry Onstott, an uncle of mine, and Harvey Laughlin, a cousin of mine, kept a drug store in Yellville and collected rare specimens of lizards, serpents, spiders, horned frogs and centipedes, and kept them in a large glass jar which sat on the counter. The jar was full of alcohol and the collection was put in the jar for preservation as they were brought in. Among the collection was a monster centipede. It was of such unusual size, it made one almost shudder to look at it. Brice Milum, who was a merchant at Yellville when Mr. Music brought the centipede to town, said he assisted in the measuring of it before it was put in the alcohol, and its length was found be eighteen inches. It attracted a great deal of attention and was the largest centipede I ever saw. The jar with its contents was either destroyed or carried off during the heat of the [Civil] war."
Vance Randolph, in his 1947 book Ozark Superstitions, relates that some old-timers say that a centipede tries to count the teeth of every child who approaches him; if the creature makes a correct count, the child will die in a few weeks. One of Parler's (1963) students reported that if you let a centipede see our teeth, they will rot out, while another student stated that if a centipede gets in your mouth and counts your teeth you will die. Randolph (1947) testified that he had seen children close their lips firmly and even cover their mouths with their hands when a centipede appeared in an Ozark cabin. Many hillfolk also repeated the tale that the bite of a centipede makes flesh fall off the bones.
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